The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Manmohan puts on political cap

New Delhi, Oct. 28: Reform guru Manmohan Singh is finally earning his political stripes.

Sonia Gandhi’s handling of “Mission Kashmir” has marked the return of two trusted lieutenants — Manmohan Singh and Arjun Singh — as her key advisers in the decision-making process.

The elevation is a firm indication that power equations are changing at 10 Janpath, where Sonia lives, and 24 Akbar Road, where the Congress has its headquarters.

The emergence of Manmohan Singh as chief negotiator for Kashmir and the entry of Arjun Singh as the party’s representative to finalise the common minimum programme with the People’s Democratic Party has underlined Sonia’s dependence on them.

Missing from the action was man of all seasons — Pranab Mukherjee, who heads the AICC’s Kashmir committee.

Both Manmohan Singh and Arjun Singh were lying low for some time. Manmohan Singh had been sulking over the rise of the anti-reforms lobby which ensured a virtual rethink during the Bangalore plenary.

The party’s stand on disinvestment, labour reforms and downsizing was at variance with Manmohanomics. At one stage, Manmohan Singh had almost stopped attending party meetings on economic affairs, lamenting that traditional politicians lacked the basic understanding of good governance and fiscal management.

Initially, when Sonia chose Manmohan Singh for the Kashmir assignment, Congress circles were unsure whether an economist would be able to tackle a tricky political situation.

Some felt that it was Sonia’s way of telling the US and other western powers keeping a close tab on Kashmir that she meant business.

Eventually, Manmohan Singh’s “detached” view to judge the Kashmir problem above party lines helped Sonia make up her mind to overrule local Congress aspirations.

She was under pressure from the Congress Working Committee and the chief ministers of the party-ruled states to “net another state” and increase the party’s tally from 14 to 15.

“Manmohan Singh helped her firm up her mind that there was a need for statesmanship,” a source close to the Congress president said.

But Kashmir was not an isolated incident. Sonia told Mulayam Singh Yadav to get in touch with Manmohan Singh and Arjun Singh to explore the possibility of government formation in Uttar Pradesh.

At present, the Congress leadership is lukewarm to the idea of issuing a letter of support to Mulayam but Manmohan Singh’s involvement in Hindi heartland politics is not without significance.

Arjun Singh, too, has finally made a formal comeback. He had been unwell for some time and a “new coterie” had taken over in his absence. There was a feeling in the Congress that the decision-making process in the party had become lopsided.

Party sources said Arjun Singh provided the vital political components in dealing with PDP leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed while drafting the common minimum programme.

His presence of mind, political acumen and experience in tackling militancy in Punjab helped protect Congress’ larger interests, they said.

But Jammu and Kashmir Congress unit chief Ghulam Nabi Azad is keen to return to Delhi, instead of heading the state’s co-ordination panel that amounts to playing second fiddle to arch rival Mufti. If Azad is brought back, it could trigger a fresh round of power struggle among those close to Sonia.

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